Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: November, 2014

We’ve got more sway over Planet 67P than over our own planet

Rosetta and Philae: you could not make it up. Until the middle of last week, I did not know the couple were on a journey to Comet 67P. Ever since, I have been on the edge of my seat, awaiting the latest news.

When after twenty years planning and ten years in space, a landing craft finds a piece of rock only 2.5 miles wide and sets down only two minutes late,  I raise a smile that so much still  depends on luck and improvisation.

The whole expedition becomes incredibly fallible and human when the harpoon fails, the spindly leg topples and the solar panel cannot get enough sunlight. That is  when the boffins come into their own and make the best  available decisions. It is straight out of the Boys Own Paper.

In a lecture at Newcastle University on Thursday night, Sir Jeremy Greenstock said that three qualities make the human being successful. Not the strongest creature in the jungle, homo sapiens bring intelligence, adaptability and teamwork to the watering hole.

He could have been talking about the European Space Agency which exemplifies these qualities and where no one is claiming the glory or planting the flag. However Sir Jeremy, retired diplomatic and strategic thinker, was talking about the problems of our own planet, which seem far more intractable than conquering outer space.

His thesis was that the world is fragmenting into smaller units – 25 new countries set up since 1990 – and stronger tribes who, like ISIS, move into any empty space. Even the developed world seriously considers breaking apart, as in Scotland or Catalonia, to find a comfortable shape that supports its own beliefs and lifestyle.

This poses a challenge for governments and for international institutions who, he felt, suffer from signs of old age and fixed thinking. Sir Jeremy spoke as Chairman of the United Nations Association in the UK and with some affection for the United Nations whose corridors he had patrolled on our behalf around the turn of the century.

I spent a few moments trying to recite the line of Secretary Generals from Dag Hammarskjold onwards without much success.  Hammarskjold’s death  in a mysterious plane crash in 1961 whilst trying to mediate in central Africa was my earliest memory of the United Nations. Khrushchev famously banged his shoe on the podium  and McNamara dramatically confronted his opposite number with photos of missiles in Cuba but all that was a long time ago.

Sir Jeremy spoke highly of the constituent agencies that make up United Nations, dealing with disaster relief, refuges and climate change. In the last year, U N has  supported the massive rise in the numbers of refugees, now running at 32,000 a day, displaced through conflict in Syria, Libya, Iraq, South Sudan and Central African Republic. Without a U N  force to police the world  or any real control on weapons sales, armed conflict breaks out only too easily and continues unabated.

The United Nations is good  at picking up the pieces but  sadly not so smart at peacekeeping. It was charged, in the words of the 1945 Charter, “ to pursue diplomacy and maintain international peace and security” and “ to save succeeding generations form the scourge of war.” That is how I learned it as a schoolboy.

Sir Jeremy admitted that there have been too many recent failures, notably Syria, at an inter government level. He regretted that Obama had not talked to the Iranians earlier and that governments did not speak more to each other – apart from the  futile playground exchanges with President Putin this past weekend before he set off for his warship. Posturing  may play out well back home but diplomacy it isn’t.

Most commentators lay the blame for the United Nations demise as a peacekeeper on the so called superpowers. The five victors of the second world war, United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom hold the permanent seats at the Security Council and have power of veto.

Russia blocked resolutions over Afghanistan and United States ignored the U N over Iraq. The big and ageing powers should play a global leadership role and restrict their use of the veto to their clearly national interests.

The quietly seething dissident friend in the next seat to me muttered that international law is of no use at all if it continues to be implemented selectively by the five members of the Security Council, all major arms manufacturers by the way, who represent less than a third of humanity.

Sir Jeremy defended the United Kingdom’s place at the table when the likes of Germany, Japan, India and Brazil are left out. He did argue for a more open process to elect the next Secretary General when Ban Ki Moon retires in 2016 to provide leadership that was for “more general and less secretary.”

This was one of ten ideas for U K foreign policy in a radical and well argued manifesto from UNA, pressed into my hand on departure. They include a clear pathway to eradicate nuclear weapons, robust policies to control arms, drones and ‘killer robots’ and a strong commitment to safeguard human rights at home. ( Read them on line at

They may  lack the force of Nicola Sturgeon’s welcome promise to only party with anyone who removes the submarines from the Clyde but they were specific incremental steps and a valuable briefing on often neglected issues for the coming election.

I  doubt whether the United Nations can recapture the power and idealism it held in  the sixties. But only  binding international agreements can address global challenges like poverty, climate change and the arms trade. The United Nations may still be our only hope.

By the end of last week, we were closer to knowing the secret of the universe but no closer to solving our own global problems. Daj Hammarskold said that “he who wills adventure will experience it”. That might be the motto for world leaders as much for  mission control at Darmstadt.

Let us all find a way to go in love

We did our best to provide the sweets and look suitably frightened when the  ‘trick or treaters’ knocked last Friday. But as I glanced around at the surrounding houses, I doubted if we passed muster.

Most of our neighbours houses were covered in cobwebs and scary notices. The woman across the road even dressed up as a witch. Full marks to them all for entering into the spirit of Halloween.

I hope I earned a tick though for turning out for the All Hallows service at church last night. Next to Christingle, which plays to two packed houses for the same children who trick and treat, it is the best attended event of the year.

The congregation is swelled by families who have attended funerals in church in the preceding year. We listen to a long list of names of the departed and light a candle in their memory. Perhaps most importantly , we  comfort  each other.

I have lost some important friends this year and remembered them and prayed for their families. I recalled with affection my own parents who have made me, for better or worse, what I am.

I have to admit that I struggle with the after life. In the traditional translation of St John’s gospel, Jesus tell us “that in my fathers house, there are many mansions. I go there to prepare a place for you.”  Would there be hoovers? I was hoping to give up the housework in heaven.

There may be a celestial housing shortage  as the new translations only refer to ‘dwelling places’ or ‘rooms’. Heaven will, of course, be full of asylum seekers.  I know I need not worry. I will be taken care of even if the details remain a mystery for now.

During a humanist burial last week, I was struck that the final exhortation to our departed friend that he “should go in love”. On a windswept hillside, we all repeated the phrase several times before taking our own leave.

The dying and the bereaved should not be afraid and should be surrounded with love. In their different ways that is what Halloween and All Hallows should be all about.

Tesco Lite

How are the mighty fallen. The Tesco share price has plummeted. The people who put the food on our tables have been found out.

I am a closet admirer of Tesco. Their stores  are well laid out and their home delivery service utterly reliable. But it is a long time since I have ventured into a Tesco Extra as opposed to one of their express shops in town.

As I drive into Hexham, the automatic pilot heads to the smaller upmarket store across the road. Others make their way to the  nearby Aldi. The super store gargantuan has passed its sell by date.

I was shocked that a top one hundred company could have inflated its profits by some dubious accounting. For all I know, their competitors do the same. Heads have rolled but questions still need to be answered about how the board approved the practice and how the auditors signed off the accounts.

The serious fraud office opened an inquiry last week that may take several years to complete. Rolls Royce is also under investigation. I am amazed at the complacency with which we treat white collar crime. We cannot afford to doubt our belief in the efficacy of  corporate governance  on which our prosperity and our pension funds depend.

Deeper opprobrium would have been heaped on a failing school, a rotten local authority or a charity that had cooked its books. Tesco has got off lightly.

A Gem on Teesside

Another week working in Middlesbrough gives me the opportunity to visit mima. For Tyneside readers, I should explain Middlebrough Institute of Modern Art  is the contemporary art gallery in the town centre. No converted riverfront mill, but a sparkling new building opened seven years ago.

The immediate reason for the visit was to view the newly opened jewellery gallery which boast the best collection outside the V &A. My first learning point is that there is a school of ‘ new jewellery’ making on Teesside which, second learning point, is not the sort of thing you put round your neck every day of the week. In the adjoining gallery is a retrospective exhibition of Wendy Ramshaw who, third learning point, is one of our greatest living jewellery makers.

I have much to learn when it comes to jewellery – as my wife will tell you. It is the third exhibition that takes my breath away and has me whooping with delight. ‘Modern Art and St Ives’ is a collaboration with Tate St Ives based on the work of the small group of artists who made their home in St Ives during and after the second world war.

I was expecting galleries full of the works of Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Bernard Leach along with tales of their lives and loves in an idyllic Cornish landscape. There are relatively few works of their works on show  so the title is something of a misnomer. The exhibition aims to place St Ives in an international context. To my delight, up pops a Rothko, a Pollock, a Mondrian  and a Modigliani from the Tate’s vast collection along with some artists I had never came across such as Peter Lanyon and Bryan Wynter.

What a well curated and colourful cross section of mid twentieth century art. The show is a great introduction  for anyone getting to grips with  the kind of modern art that you could hang in the sitting room. It was evidently enjoyed, in half term week, by a number of parents explaining the work to their children.

Revise your views about culture on Teesside. mima buzzes with life; runs an honest to goodness café and a gift shop with stuff you might actually buy. Get on down there.

What about the  antiquated train service from Newcastle? Last Monday, twenty minutes late through points failure at Thornaby. I sound more and more like Reggie Perrin.